Green Bank, in Pocahontas County in West Virginia, the United States, is possibly one of the quietest residential places on earth. There is no cell phone reception here, no Wi-Fi, not even radio or television. But Green Bank is not technologically backward. On the contrary, it’s home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope on earth – the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The GBT is the reason why this town is electromagnetically silent.
Radio telescopes work by detecting electromagnetic waves that come from distant galaxies. These signals are so faint that the slightest emission of radio waves from electronic gadgets can interfere with the readings of the radio telescopes. For this reason, all cell phones, Wi-Fi, radio and other communication devices are outlawed here. There are no cell phone towers for miles around, no music plays on the radio or soap operas on the television. Not even gas operated cars are allowed because gasoline engines use spark plugs to ignite the fuel-air mixture, and electric sparks produce electromagnetic waves.
The boundaries of the device-free zone extend far beyond Green Bank, covering an area roughly equal to 13,000–square-mile. This region is called the National Radio Quiet Zone, and is located around the sparsely populated countryside that straddles the borders of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. Almost all types of radio transmissions and certain electronic devices are banned here so that the powerful Green Bank Radio Telescopes can work without disturbance. Green Bank happens to be the closest community to the Green Bank Telescope.
The tech-free life in Green Bank may seem impossible for those who can’t live without their cell phones, but for the 140-odd residents of the town, life is a bliss. Kids aren’t glued to the glowing screens of their mobile devices. They actually talk to each other instead of texting. Older residents roll down their car windows to greet each other and leave their front doors unlocked. If they must speak to someone out of town, there are pay phones.
The current telescope, completed in 2000, was built following the collapse of the previous Green Bank telescope, a 90.44 m paraboloid erected in 1962. The previous telescope collapsed on 15 November 1988 due to the sudden loss of a gusset plate in the box girder assembly, which was a key component for the structural integrity of the telescope.
Living under the shadow of the giant telescope, some of the residents are not even aware of the technological advances elsewhere.
“We didn’t realize the rest of the world was getting connected and staying connected constantly, via phones and computers and all that,” said radio host Caleb Diller, who grew up in Pocahontas County. “So we were kinda back in time a little bit. We hadn’t progressed to that.”
Over the last few years, many people have taken up residence in Green Bank. These people claim to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS—a disease not recognized by the scientific community. It’s said that people suffering from EHS get symptoms like dizziness, nausea, rashes, irregular heartbeat, weakness, and chest pains from electromagnetic radiations.
“Life isn’t perfect here,” said Diane Schou, one of the first “electrosensitive” immigrants who came to Green Bank with her husband in 2007. “There’s no grocery store, no restaurants, no hospital nearby. But here, at least, I’m healthy. I can do things. I’m not in bed with a headache all the time.” As of 2013, an estimated 36 people have moved to Green Bank to escape the effects of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
The previous telescope
The GBT is fully steerable, and 85% of the entire celestial sphere is accessible. The structure weighs 8500 tons and stands 450 feet above ground. The surface area of the GBT is a 100 by 110 meter active surface with 2,209 actuators (a small motor used to adjust the position) for the 2,004 surface panels. The panels are made from aluminium to a surface accuracy of better than 0.003 inches (76 µm) RMS. The actuators adjust the panel positions to correct for distortions due to gravity which change as the telescope moves. Without this so-called “active surface”, observations at frequencies above 4 GHz would not be as efficient.